Dig reveals 2,700-year-old secrets

Karen Neville


Wittenham Clumps finds on display at Festival of Discovery on February 17th & 18th at Earth Trust

Archaeologists have unearthed an exceptionally rare Iron Age blacksmith’s workshop in South Oxfordshire, dating back nearly 2,700 years to the earliest days of ironworking in Britain.
The discoveries were made by archaeologists from DigVentures during excavations at the Earth Trust, near Abingdon. Just downslope from the iconic Wittenham Clumps, the dig revealed a smithy containing artefacts like pieces of hearth lining, hammerscale, iron bar, and the exceptionally rare discovery of an intact tuyere – evidence of a serious ironworking operation.

“At Earth Trust, we’re thrilled whenever discoveries at Wittenham Clumps shine a light on the deep history of human activity in this area,” said Anna Wilson, Head of Experience and Engagement.
“Nearly 10,000 artefacts were recovered during the dig, and as we continue to analyse them, the story gets more and more captivating. These new discoveries are literally forging new history before our very eyes and revealing more of the ancient mysteries behind this very special place – we can’t wait to share more through our upcoming Festival of Discovery.”

Photo Credit: Digventures

Festival of Discovery

The key finds will be on display February 17th-18th, during a special Festival of Discovery at the Earth Trust Visitor Centre. The festival includes talks from the archaeologists, hands-on workshops with the archaeologists, and a free pop-up exhibition showcasing artefacts like the tuyere and rare small finds.
Visitors will have an exclusive chance to see the discoveries up-close and learn more about the skills of these early Oxfordshire craftsmen. Tickets and more information are available at earthtrust.org.uk/whats-on.

Ancient Blacksmiths of the Clumps

Radiocarbon dating reveals the smithy dates from 771-515 BC, soon after ironworking first arrived in Britain around 800 BC. The size of the hearth suggests this was no ordinary village blacksmith, but rather the workshop of an ‘elite’ or ‘master’ ironworker producing swords, tools, wagon wheels, and other high-value objects.

“It’s exceptionally rare to find a complete tuyere, especially one that’s as old as this. Although there are examples from later periods, including Saxon, Viking-age, and medieval pieces, this is one of the only known Iron Age ones in the country, if not Europe. The fact that it dates not just to the Iron Age, but to the first few centuries of ironworking in Britain, is remarkable” said Gerry McDonnell, the archaeometallurgical specialist who examined the finds.

“What’s more, the size of it suggests we’re looking at a hearth that was much larger and more specialised than that of your average village smithy” he continued.

The vast majority of artefacts produced in the Iron Age weren’t very big and could be produced with quite a small hearth, while larger hearths would have taken much more skill and resources to control, said the researchers.
“The only reason a blacksmith would need a bigger hearth would be if they were forging something long like swords or trade bars, or big, like cart wheels. And these wouldn’t be done by your average village smithy who would normally take care of everyday objects and repairs.
“The fact that this early Iron Age smithy had a specialist tuyere shows us this was much more likely to have been a serious operation by a highly skilled, elite, or master blacksmith” McDonnell concluded.

Even though the Iron Age takes its name from the mastery of this metal, sites that provide us with direct evidence of how they did this – especially ones from such an early period – are extremely scarce.

“It’s always exciting to uncover the remains of ancient buildings that were occupied thousands of years ago, but it’s even more special when we find such direct evidence of who lived there and what they were doing inside,” said Nat Jackson, DigVentures Site Director, who led the excavation.

“In this case, the range of evidence is remarkable. We’ve got almost every component of the blacksmith’s workshop; the building, internal structures, hearth lining, tuyere, even the tiny bits of metal that fly off when the blacksmith is hammering the metal. The only thing we haven’t found is the tools.
“It’s an incredible thrill to uncover something like this. It basically allows us to peer back in time and see what could have been one of Britain’s earliest master blacksmiths at work,” he added.

Excavations also revealed an Iron Age settlement including a cluster of roundhouses, an Iron Age pantry, and evidence of ceremonial or ritual activity including animal burials, as well as a later Roman villa where archaeologists found the remains of a tiny Roman pet dog.

Local residents now have an exclusive opportunity to view these finds first-hand and learn more about Oxfordshire’s ancient ironworking heritage at February’s Festival of Discovery.

Main image credit: Digventures

Blacksmith forging ahead

Round & About


Celia Stone finds out more about John Ward, the blacksmith of Donkeywell Forge in Quenington

John Ward is not only keeping alive the skills of craftsmen, he is also interesting young people to take up and maintain its traditions, by from time to time recruiting new apprentices.

Very few villages have their own forge these days – as they also no longer have a post office, local shop or their own school. Quenington’s forge however differs in its line of work from those of older times, which carried out mainly farriery and the casual odd job of repairs to metalwork.

Although John Ward still carries out farriery, his main occupation is in blacksmithing and creating decorative architectural ironwork. This includes for churches, for private individuals, and at prestigious locations such as Buscot Park, working for the National Trust.

John, who has been at his current base for about eight years, followed an apprenticeship in February at the start of his career, but has always had an interest in the blacksmithing aspect and he now specialises in this.

People walking through the village of Ampney St Peter will be able to admire the new gates he has made for the entrance, and those who attend services at Compton Abdale will be able to have a safe passage up the steep and winding path to St Oswald’s Church with the aid of the handrail which the forge has made.

John works with architects and designers. A recent commission on which he has been working this year is four chandeliers to hang in a new wedding venue at Bolton Abbey, a stately home in Yorkshire.

The chandeliers are described by John as ‘gigantic’, measuring two metres high and two to three metres across. He expected the whole project to take about three months to complete.

Originally from Bristol, he started out in welding and fabricating, then having always had an interest in horses he started at the age of 22 his four-year apprenticeship in farriery, at the town forge in Malmesbury.

This was to stand him in good stead later in his career, when he was doing work for racehorse trainers. He shod a winner of each of steeplechasings most high-profile races, the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Grand National. His Grand National winner was a horse named “Don’t Push It”.

But while farriery was his main focus during his apprenticeship, he also followed in his own time his interest in blacksmithing.

At the age of 27 he was able to start his own business which in this year of 2018 celebrates its 21st anniversary. He initially based the business in a workshop in Coln St Aldwyn, there concentrating on blacksmithing.

He moved to Quenington about eight years ago, to Donkeywell Farm, which is owned by the Ernest Cook Trust, a well-known supporter of the continuation of traditional skills and crafts.

John has a staff of four, plus apprentices. This is very much a family business, with his wife Fiona dealing with the secretarial side and their two sons and their daughter enjoying helping out after school and at weekends.

John takes satisfaction not only in the creation of his ironwork, but in seeing it in its new setting.

Once a project has been completed, he and his team carry out all the installations themselves. “I like new gates to settle in looking as if they have always been there,” he says.” If a client says that this is how they appear, then we have succeeded,” he says.

“The greatest thing is to make sure that we are proud of what we are making.”

Visit www.donkeywellforge.co.uk